Guest Post: A.J. Brown

Our 2018 theme is “Connect” and my dear A.J. Brown wrote about “Community,” which seems just right: we live in community, we invest in community, we create community as we knit our heartstrings together. Please note: if you would like to guest post on this blog, please see the link above.

Community.

When someone asks me to write an article or blog post about a certain word, I usually try to start with my knee jerk emotional reaction to that word. For example, when the owner of this blog asked me to write a post about creativity a couple of years ago, that was simple. My beautiful, unicorn and rainbow loving little boy exemplified the word and still does now.

Community.

What does that mean to me? I think the reason this post was hard to write is that community means so many different things to me. The town I grew up in represented a community I couldn’t wait to get out of. Then, when I grew up and became a parent, I couldn’t wait to move back. I can’t imagine raising my kids anywhere else.

Community.

It doesn’t just refer to a geographical area in which we live, does it? Not for me, anyway. Yes, I live in this community. I am part of this community. But, I am also part of many communities within this community, and that’s what I love about this community.

In junior high and high school in this same community, I often felt like the odd girl out. I didn’t have just one posse of friends with whom I did everything and shared everything…I never felt like I belonged to any one group. I was more of a floater. Some months I gravitated towards the popular crowd and the other cheerleaders, other times I’d get fed up with the cattiness and take refuge with the quiet academics. Or, if there was a boy I was interested in (wasn’t there always?), I’d hang around with the athletes. I got really good at being “one of the guys.” I could occasionally be found breathing second hand smoke in a van behind the school listening to “Stairway to Heaven,” or flaunting my impressively flipped bangs and perm at college parties when I was just sixteen. Some lunchtimes, I felt too insecure to join any group at all, and you’d find me in the library, or assisting a teacher. Looking back, I realize that what was so hard about those years for me was that I felt that I didn’t HAVE a community. I was just an occasional honorary member. I didn’t have the self-confidence to just…be. I could not wait to graduate, get the heck out, and finally discover who I really was.

Fast forward several decades, and here I am, living in this same community, with a lot of the same folks who grew up here just like I did. Apparently this town breeds homing pigeons. The difference? Now this finally feels like MY community. This time around, I know exactly who I am and who I want to be. Furthermore, I truly don’t care who likes it and who doesn’t. Interestingly, while I’m a completely different person as an adult than I was as that corner hugging, cringing teenager, I’m still a floater. But this time, it’s not because I feel like I don’t fit in, it’s because I am blessed to feel like I fit in everywhere. Everything about this town makes me happy, and I adore all of the smaller communities that, together, make up this beautiful flower of a larger community. 

When I go to Starbucks in the morning, I love that I see the same faces, day after day. I don’t know many of their names, but they know my face and I know theirs and we greet each other with smiles that are genuine. I love the groups of older (than me, which is all relative) folks who commune there every single morning. They have an amazing community. I love that when I’m working out of Starbucks, as I often am because my home and office get lonely during the day, never a day goes by where I don’t see several people I know and whom I am genuinely happy to see. This silly little chain store coffee shop is a community all its own. Just as I’ve been sitting here writing this, I’ve been greeted by a teenager, several moms, a dear friend of a dad who happens to be working at “home” today, a newspaper reporter I adore for whom this is home base, a friend I went to high school with, and one of my favorite neighbors who’s treating her kindergarten son to a treat after a traumatic dentist visit. And that’s just in the space of an hour.

I love that I can’t ever go to the gym without seeing at least one friendly face I know. I’ve been taking the same Friday morning spin class for several years now, and the group of people that show up with me, week after week, through good times and bad, is a community all its own. I love these people, and I love the pixie sized, tattooed sprite who inspires us and pushes us to the point where I’m not sure if I’m going to throw up or pass out, and yet afterwards I feel amazing for two days. I love that when I’m having a really bad week I can cry my way through class and no one blinks an eye, they just hug me when we’re done. I’m literally tearing up writing this just thinking about that group of people and how much they mean to me even though I really only see them once a week for an hour. That’s community.

Our kids’ schools, of course, create their own communities. We’re so fortunate to live in a place where the parents work really hard to help make the schools great, and we are blessed with teachers and administrators who have passion about kids and education. It tends to be the same group of parents year over year who volunteer for everything, but instead of that feeling like a burden, to me it feels like a gift. It makes me part of THAT community, and that is an amazing group of selfless parents and school staff that I’m blessed to be a part of.

If you know me, you know that I could, of course, write chapters and chapters about this community and how it rallied around my family when our daughter got diagnosed with cancer (almost three years ago, WHAT?!?). I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say, I truly learned the meaning of the word community when the $4i% hit the fan, as people I didn’t even know in this community banded together and raised us up when we were in danger of sinking. During that time, this community felt more like a TRIBE. It still does. At unexpected moments, I will be approached by a complete stranger who will tell me that she has followed my (prolific) Facebook posts about our journey with cancer and that she was inspired by our story.

I could go on and on about all the other communities within this community that add joy to my life…from the moms who became friends when our kids were in preschool and even though the kids are now spread out across different elementary schools, seeing them still makes me feel like part of a special family. There are the “dance moms,” moms whose children share a passion for dance at the academy where I am lucky enough to work, and who make me feel blessed every time I go to work to be a part of that community, one that brings the gift of joy and grace and strength to kids through the art of dance. There are the sporty moms, the philanthropic moms, the working moms, the mindful moms, the activist moms…and now as then, I float. I love ALL these groups of moms. I AM these moms. All of them. Why should I pigeonhole myself?

I can’t close any discussion about community, though, without mentioning the one community-within-my-community that feeds my soul the most. On Thursday mornings, I skip the gym in favor of strengthening my spirit instead of my body. I go to a group called Moms’ Council, which is held at my church and is a group of about 150 mothers of all ages and generations who come together each week to…commune. Each session has a theme and there are always wonderful speakers to engage the mind, but for me, it’s the community of women that truly feeds my soul. I’ve sat at the same table with the same group of women for three years now, and I can’t describe the feeling of sitting down with them any better than I feel like I can just…breathe. Breathe in a way I can’t anywhere else. These women are my safest of safest places. We can rage, cry, fall apart and emotionally vomit all over each other without judgment and without ever worrying that what we say won’t remain just between us.

Because, as outwardly perfect as many of our lives may seem, we’re all dealing with our own burdens, fears and pain. Sometimes, you just can’t carry it alone. Sometimes you need more than your family and faith in God to help with the weight. Sometimes you need…community. And no matter how messy or difficult my life may get, that is one area in which I am incredibly blessed. I am rich in community, and for that I am very, very grateful.

 

 

A.J. Brown is a mother, wife, friend, sister, daughter, employee, volunteer, taxi driver, gym rat, health nut, lover of wine, travel, books, dessert, cooking, meditation, Buddha statues, and a compulsive throw pillow purchaser.

Pride & Joy

Parents often speak of their children as their Pride and Joy.

My mom has often said that she can’t be proud of her children. Not that she doesn’t have reason to feel pride, but that she won’t take credit for our accomplishments.

I hope it’s not disrespectful, on Mother’s Day of all days, to say: I get that, and I don’t.

7-2-11 006I love you, Mom, and I believe you deserve at least some credit for anything I’ve achieved. Throughout my life you have poured into me love and confidence, strength and energy, beauty and creativity, and countless stories of heroes near and far overcoming odds to live meaningful lives. You have been my model of faith, integrity, and perseverance. You held my hand when I needed courage and patted my back when I needed an encouraging nudge forward. You listened–oh, how you have listened–to my never-ending drama and you spoke words of wisdom in response. Who could count the hours you have spent in prayer for me, from before my life began until this very day?

Yes, I have made my own decisions, for good and ill; I have formed my own opinions which have influenced those choices; but I did neither in a vacuum. Your loving presence has helped to shape the woman I have become, and I am grateful.

Besides, synonyms for Pride include: pleasure, joy, delight, satisfaction. I would never ask you to bear the burden of my mistakes, but I do hope that as you look at me you feel joy or delight, at least from time to time. I want you to feel satisfied in a job well done (so much more than well done).

I look at my own sons through eyes filled with pride, my heart overflowing with pleasure, joy, delight, and satisfaction. They amaze me, these unique individuals, so much their own people from Day 1. The First, who has always slept so deeply because he filled every waking moment with his energetic joy at discovering life; and the Second, who has never slept well in part because his old soul moves him at a more peaceful pace. Like their mama, they eat books; like their dad, they drink nature. They reflect their parents and yet we still have so much to learn from them.

Other times I look at my sons and–I’m sure you understand–my heart aches. I feel crushed when others don’t see them the way I do, when others want to squash their out-of-the-box gifts into neatly-constructed, life-sucking boxes. My kids will never easily fit, just as I don’t. Just as you don’t, Mom. Thanks for teaching me that it’s more than okay to be myself, no matter what others think. More than just a lesson on how to be in this world, I consistently apply it to parenting.

And my heart aches for the moments lost, the opportunities I didn’t grab, the times my impatience got the better of me and I snapped instead of listened. I haven’t done this parenting thing perfectly, but I knew better than to expect that I would. I pray that someday my kids will recognize that I have been a Good Enough Mother, that I did a Good Enough job at this parenting thing, that they have had a Good Enough childhood, and that all the truly good stuff is God’s grace. You do your best, and let God do the rest. You taught me that, too.hands

To my mother-in-law: Of course this all applies directly to you as well, as you have done for your son everything my mom has done for me. Thank You for raising my Guy, this incredible man with whom I get to share life. More than 20 years into marriage and, to this day, he’s still better at the traditional homemaker activities than I am. You nurtured his creativity in the kitchen, and some of our favorite “dates” have been cooking together. You taught him to mend and iron and sew and clean and–hooray!–I have fewer chores. You prayed for him (and for me), nurtured his faith, and showed him the joy of servant leadership, and oh how he serves: his family, his friends, his faith community, and his community. Through your son you have given me a tremendous gift. I can never thank you enough.tent 2And to my Mama Friends: How could we do this messy thing called mothering without each other for support, encouragement, shared laughter, tears, prayers, and adventures? I am so glad my kids know they can call on you when they can’t stand me (c’mon, it happens). God has filled this village with strong, beautiful, graceful women, each with her own challenges and strengths, and I am so grateful we’re trekking this stretch of life’s journey together. Together we are raising quite a troop of energetic, creative, strong young people who are going to change the world in ways we can’t yet imagine. Thanks for being you.

Thankful Thursday – A New Year

NYE15

I haven’t posted a Thankful Thursday in a while. I also cannot believe we are three weeks into 2016. And yet, I’m already planning for spring, and summer, and fall, and I’m not even sure what happened to Christmas except that it was, in surprising ways, quiet, lovely and crazy, relaxing and somehow just what we needed.

I’m thankful.

I am always thankful for our small NorCal town, and the beauties of small-town living.

I am thankful for a Dear One who invited us to our small town Awesome College basketball game on New Year’s Eve – for fun, friends and family cheering together as we encouraged the team and welcomed a new year. And then the goofiness of allowing Tween to stay up until midnight, drinking too much apple cider while snuggling pooch and watching Ryan Seacrest’s (lacking) NYE show.NYEQI
I am thankful for my beloved Guy, and his birthday, and a family excursion to Marin to walk a beautiful wintry beach with my loves.marin dog marin shell marin
I am thankful for opportunities to buy and cook beautiful California in-season produce in enticing ways, to savor flavors and feed my family healthy food.broccoli
I am thankful for new creative projects that challenge, excite, and sometimes scare me just enough.

I am thankful for new books that fulfill my craving to learn through story.Jan16 bks
I am thankful for our moms’ group at church, for the leadership team who pray and lead with love; for the larger group who share their struggles and joys in prayer so we can hope and be encouraged together; and especially for my table group of women with whom we cry and laugh and share in life as we grow in faith and friendship.

I am thankful for snuggly pets.phoebe
I am thankful for my gals who take me as I am, even when I arrive with wet hair because I showered last-minute because I just wasn’t sure I was up to a night out. And yet our friendships light up my life and I need them more than they know.jan gals
I am thankful Finals Week = Almost Over for Teen. I am thankful Teen allowed Guy and me to participate in a coloring project with him (coloring = one of the “school tasks” I’m always willing to do, since no one should truly be graded on coloring), reminiscent of my own mom working on high school projects late into the night with me, cherished memories I hope my son will also have of his mom.C color

Being thankful makes me happy. What are you thankful for so far in 2016?

Moms’ and Kids’ End-of-Summer Camp Out

A queue of 40 email responses filled my inbox before I saw Email #1 inviting me to participate in an end-of-summer overnight camp out with moms and kids, and by then the sites had been booked. Besides, I expected (hoped!) to be just returning from a sixteen-day family camping trip, so the timing wouldn’t work for us.

However, the family trip never materialized, the gals had space for two more, and I come with a 10-person tent. So Tween and I went camping, part of my continuing resolution this year to “put myself in the way of beauty.”

Gatherings of women + kids always carry potential for drama. Between five moms and nine children, some of us…
…have more and less experience.
…were more and less prepared.
…felt more and less anxiety (and for different reasons).
…are more and less high maintenance.
…tend to be more and less accident prone.
…have more and less energy.
…are more and less organized.
…feel more and less easily overwhelmed.
…enjoy more and less spontaneity.

Most of us had never traveled together, although collectively we’ve known each other well and socialized regularly for a number of years. To boot, I’ve never been camping as an adult without Guy who does all the heavy lifting.

This trip was worth any risk! We packed a lot of fun and laughter into two short days.

We caravaned to Drakes Beach where we picnicked and played. Kids found shells, sand dollars, and crabs.shell crabThey also learned that crabs, even small ones, bite hard.crab 1 crab 2Kids ran and danced and played chicken with waves and of course got soaked. It never takes long at the beach before children who swore they wouldn’t get wet and had been warned by moms not to get wet in fact get wet and by necessity start stripping off various layers of clothing. Kids also dug in sand and in sandstone cliffs. Best yet, we encountered a sea lion taking a siesta on the shore.sea lionWe camped at Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Sans Dad-assistance, we learned to set up tents. I am particularly proud that, despite a temporary break in my Drama Dam, I coordinated kids and set up a new-to-me 10-person tent. It might not have been perfect, but it stayed up.tent 1tent 2

Kids rode bikes and scooters and, when they got tired, worked together to create lanyards while moms brought out excessive amounts of food and drink – chips and dips, salad, perfectly grilled veggies, and quesadillas and burritos made to order. One mom taught us to make a new camping dessert: s’mores in a cone! Fill a sugar cone with mini marshmallows and chocolate chips, wrap completely in aluminum foil, then set on a grill rack, turning occasionally, until ooey-gooey. Yum!

After a warmer-than-anticipated night’s sleep, wherein some of us slept more and less well, we feasted yet again on beer pancakes, melon, and a goulash of scrambled eggs and veggies. In the absence of a coffee maker, one mom improvised by using a hair elastic to secure a napkin-turned-filter to the mouth of a coffee cup before filling it with Peet’s Coffee grounds and adding boiling water. Creativity + Determination = Voila!

We packed up the cars, then biked/scootered/walked to a watering hole where kids skipped rocks.moms walkrock skippingthistleHalf of us set off for home, while the rest went to Point Reyes Station to stroll through cute shops (including a fun art exhibit, The Box Show) and get lunch and soft serve ice cream made from buffalo milk.ice cream

Last night while dinner cooked, the Moms gathered around the table for a glass of wine. Feeling grateful, I raised my glass and said, “Cheers, Moms! Parenting is hard. We are all different with different kids and we may do this parenting thing differently, but I am so glad to be parenting in such good company.”

And today as we packed up, Tween gave me a quick side-grab hug and thanked me for taking him camping. We made happy memories together, my kid and I, and my friends and I, and my heart is full.

camping cheers

Mommy Guilt

Sometimes the person we need to forgive, the one most in need of the gift of grace, is ourselves. We need to release our own guilt. 

A few years ago I had the opportunity to speak to moms of preschoolers on social/emotional development. As I reflected on my children during the preschool years, the topic that demanded reflection and airing was who I was as a parent of a preschooler. So I talked about the moms instead of their kids, specifically mommy guilt. I suspect most moms deal with mommy guilt long beyond the preschool years. I know I have.

Even though Teen is smack in the middle of high school and Tween is rounding the bend toward middle school, the preschool years were some of the hardest and loneliest years of my parenting thus far. I wanted these kids desperately and waited a long time for each of them, and then they arrived: these little people so different from me.

I thought motherhood would be filled with books, arts and crafts, music and baby gym classes, baking special treats – quiet, creative and mostly indoor activities. And while we enjoyed some of those things, Teen took off running full speed before his first birthday and hasn’t stopped since. He wanted to be outside, up a hill, in a tree, at the zoo, collecting snails and lining them up for races; he got the ‘creative’ but not the ‘quiet’ or ‘indoor’ part of my vision.

snail

Meanwhile, I seemed to be surrounded by super moms parenting super kids. While I made activity charts and set timers to balance high- and low-energy activities and wrestled with boredom and most days felt like I was on a see-saw of incredible joy and wanting to yank out my unwashed hair, these moms appeared 100% put-together, never frazzled, and yes, their kids were eating, sleeping and pooping right on schedule.

I watched and listened and tried to take advice. I read about parenting. I joined a moms’ group. I talked with teachers and pediatricians. I tried to apply what I learned. Some of it helped; some of it made me feel much, much worse. Why couldn’t I be the mother I wanted to be? What was wrong with me? Desperately in love with my son, too often I felt like a terrible mom.

One mom who happened to write down a story much like mine said her “Aha!” moment came when she was carefully making the final arrangements for her son’s sixth birthday party, trying so hard to measure up to society’s – and her own – vision of perfect motherhood. As she set the table, her son came bounding in and bounced apart all the work she’d done. She shrieked, “Can’t you see I’m trying to make a nice party for you?”

Can you see his face?
Can you feel her guilt?

As she attempted to be the Pinterest-perfect mother, she moved farther from being her son’s best mother. ‘Doing it all’ on the outside, inside she felt inadequate, overwhelmed, and burned out.

Popular authors Cloud and Townsend point out that most parents are perfectionistic when it comes to their kids. We want to parent perfectly to raise perfect kids. But we aren’t perfect and neither are our kids. Hence, we experience mommy guilt.

I asked my Facebook friends what causes them mommy guilt and their answers mirrored my experience:

I felt guilty for wanting my child to be more like me.
I felt guilty for not understanding more about who he was and what he needed.
I felt guilty for being low-energy when my child had enough energy to power a large metropolis region.
I felt guilty for not having enough time to care for anything well or even adequately –my child, my home, my husband, or myself.
I felt guilty for needing to work and so being away from my child, and I felt guilty for enjoying my work time away from my child.
I felt guilty for not having it all together like the other mommies seemed to.
I felt guilty when my child was the one screaming in the grocery store.
I felt guilty when I was so beat at the end of the day that I read myself to sleep in my child’s bed.
I felt guilty for wanting to read a magazine instead of Moo, Baa, La La La for the 100th time.
I felt guilty for feeling so guilty!
And this one made me laugh: one friend responded that she felt guilty for hiding in the bathroom to eat chocolate so she wouldn’t have to share.

There are plenty of real reasons why a parent could feel guilty, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the real or perceived pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect parents, get it all done (whatever “it” is), to measure up to unrealistic standards…

I think you follow. Take a deep breath and give yourself grace! Yes, you will fall short. So will the people around you. They need grace as well.

One of the most encouraging things I heard during the preschool years was this: “Don’t compare what you know of yourself to what you see in someone else.” I recently heard these quotes: “Comparison is the thief of happiness” and “Faith and worry cannot live in the same heart.” Maybe other parents felt as worn-out as I did and simply did a better job hiding it, but I compared and let it drag me down. I wish we’d all been honest with each other about the joys and struggles of parenting. Friends, find those safe people!

The single most encouraging thing I’ve ever heard about motherhood: God chose me to mother my child. That makes me the perfect mother for my child. YOU are the perfect mother for your child – God intended you to be and grow together. And along the way, God helps, guides, and supports you. He isn’t surprised that life is hard, that it twists and turns. God has equipped you for the journey, and He trusts you to do a good job in His name.

Of course you have things to teach your child, but be open to the ways that God wants to use your child to teach you. There is no one perfect way to raise children. In fact, since God created each person unique, there have to be as many ways to parent a child as there are parents matched with children. While preparing this talk, I found a whole book on just that. Funny, I found it on my own book shelf. I have decided not to feel guilty about not knowing I had a book that might’ve helped me had I realized I had it.

Get to know yourself. Say yes when you can and no when you need to. Parent from your strengths and find others who can fill in where you’re weak. Rely on your husband, and try really hard not to correct him when he does things differently than you would have. Surround yourself and your child with trusted friends and coaches and teachers who can build them up in ways you can’t.

One time when I felt particularly discouraged in parenting, someone asked me what I do well for Teen. Unsure I was doing anything well it took me a while, but eventually I realized that I cheer him on. I know him and understand him and can advocate for him like no one else in this world. That day I decided I would be Teen’s biggest fan. I will never have the organizational strengths to be PTA president, but Teen will always know I have his back. Yes, I know, most moms are big fans of their own kids. But consciously recognizing my own strengths as a mom helps me to let go of my weaknesses.

Hanging in my kids’ bathroom is a series of sayings entitled “How to Really Love a Child.” One line says: “Teach feelings. Heal your own inner child. Learn about parenting.” Unfortunately, as kids, a lot of us didn’t learn feelings, or at least, we didn’t learn well how to feel. We can let God work to heal the little girl hiding in our heart. We can ask God to help us forgive our parents for their own shortcomings. We can let God teach us how to feel – how to love, how to be kind and gentle, how to have strength and courage. The more we know our own hearts the more we will be able to let go of guilt and teach our kids well about feelings.

Colorful & wise

Colorful & wise

One friend confessed that she thinks she comes from a line of guilty mommies and simply inherited a legacy of guilt. As she pondered the idea, her middle schooler entered the room. She asked if he understood “mommy guilt.” He pointed to a specific example when he knew she felt guilty and then said, “Mom, you shouldn’t feel guilty. None of you should. It’s good for moms to take care of themselves!” I’m so impressed that he was able to bless his sweet mama (may we all have such experiences, eventually!).

The flipside of knowing yourself is studying your children. Think about the process you went through as you first got to know someone who has become dear to you. You observed them, asked them questions, spent time getting to know their likes and dislikes, and after all this time they probably still surprise you. If you put so much effort into getting to know your peers, it makes sense that you’ll have to put even more effort into getting to know your children.

I continually unwrap the mystery God built into my kids. They amaze me, surprise me, frustrate and delight me constantly. Having spent sixteen years with Teen, I know to send him outside when he’s having a hard day, when he’s reading a book, when he’s having a good day, pretty much all the time. And of course that doesn’t work as well with Tween because he’s a different kid with a unique personality and needs. I try not to beat myself up any more about what I don’t know. I want to continually become a humble expert in knowing my kids.

What about when we have a real reason to feel guilty? Hallelujah, children are resilient, and even better, God offers forgiveness. When we admit our failures, ask forgiveness, and seek to grow from our mistakes within the context of our families, we model for our kids health and faith. We can learn to be less afraid of mistakes and more afraid of denying them. Romans 8:1 assures us that “…there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.” No condemnation, no fear, no guilt!

You and I are God’s children, and so are our children. God doesn’t abandon His own. God loves your child more than you do. He fearfully and wonderfully made your child, and He is deeply invested in their growth and safety. Psalm 27:10 promises: “Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close.”

Not long ago one of my kids pronounced me “the worst mom ever!” I told another mom and she burst out laughing, “No way! That’s my title. You can’t have it. I am the worst mom ever!” Her perspective brought me back to myself. I am not my kids’ mom in order to be their best friend. If I’m doing my job well, they will occasionally not like me at all. And more often than I’d like I will not do my job well. I am not a super mom but I am a good enough mom in love with my kids and trying to be the mom they need.

We’re not perfect and God loves us anyway. We’re not perfect and our kids love us anyway. Let’s give ourselves the grace God wants to freely pour out on us. My favorite line from “How to Really Love a Child” is this: “If they’re crabby, put them in water. If they’re unlovable, love yourself.” Stop the mommy guilt. Let’s trust God and learn to be gentle with ourselves and gracious with others.